So often now, in the midst of happiness, I’ll feel this gloom settle over me. I know right away that it’s not a “random” sadness; it’s definitely Rick-related. I feel those tears just below the surface, a very mild form of the horrible grief I had shortly after losing him, but it builds every day and it starts to intrude upon my happy, carefree single life.
And then the detective work begins. I try to figure out why. Why now? why today? why this week? I’ve discovered that it’s often seasonal. I looked back on some of the poetry I wrote in the first year after Rick’s death and I find many of the poems relate to a new season approaching or a particular month that’s relevant. Spring coming meant remembering all the things we used to do together and how much we loved the impending summer, our favorite time of year. July was our anniversary month. August includes the month of his death one week, and his birthday the next. March was the anniversary of when we met. And then there are the treasured holidays, some meaning more than others.
So what is it right now? Why do I feel the sadness this week? What’s this gloom I sense hanging over me this morning as I rise from my bed? My birthday. My 63rd birthday is approaching. Three years since the last birthday I shared with Rick when we had my big 6-0 celebration.
One day in the late summer 2016, Rick and I were sitting out under the gazebo having our usual nightly wine-time chat. In about three months, I would be turning 60. He asked me, Hey, what do you want to do for your birthday? We have to do something special! Do you want to go on a trip, or do you want me to throw you a big party, or what?
And I hadn’t really thought about it, but in the spur the moment I decided: a party. I told him I’d love to be surrounded with my friends and family, to have my loved ones together with me celebrating this milestone.
So he started trying to figure out where and when the big event would take place. We went to look at a small hall together, but it was kind of shabby so he tried to come up with other location ideas. Then one day, we were at my son’s house, and out of the blue he asked my daughter-in-law Lindsey, if she knew of a good venue to have a party. That’s all he asked. Never mentioned for what. But, Lindsey smiled and said, Hey, Marsha and I are already taking care of this.
My niece Marsha – who has always been more like my daughter than a niece – is the ultimate party planner, and in that moment, Rick and I realized that Lindsey and Marsha had already been planning a surprise party for me. Well the surprise was out of the bag, but the fact that they were planning the party ended up being a good thing, because a few weeks later, Rick was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, and party planning was the last thing on our minds.
I wanted to cancel the party, but my family convinced me that that was a stupid idea. A party was exactly what was needed. We needed to create memories in the midst of all the awfulness. Most of all, Rick wanted the party to go on. So I agreed.
So, Lindsey and Marsha – and other friends and family who pitched in – took care of the party planning. In the months before it took place, Rick and I learned all the overwhelming facts about cancer and its treatments and the chemo and radiation side effects – and the not-very-good prognosis. They’d get the tumors this time, but the tumors would no doubt return and there was no known cure when they did. And the idea that Rick wouldn’t be around for my 61st birthday began to look more and more like a possibility.
So, he began enduring medical procedures and chemotherapy. And we learned about red blood cells and anemia. I learned how to administer shots and everything about white blood counts and how low counts made him susceptible to becoming really sick if he was around others. Would he even be able to attend the party? Would he be nauseous after round two of chemo ended a few days before? So we checked calendars and took blood tests and worried in the days leading up to the party until the doctor said yes, he could go; his blood count was sufficiently high enough to attend.
The party was wonderful. The hall was beautiful. My friends and family were there. The food was great and the wine was flowing. And Rick was having fun. That was the important thing. That was all that was on my mind. My son set up one of those photo booths, and we took wonderful fun pictures. Pictures that I still have and love to look at. Pictures of the era when my husband was still here with me on my birthday.
Turning 60 and having that party was part of the most bittersweet time of my life. Because we both knew he wouldn’t be there for my 61st. We both knew it and we pretended we didn’t. And now, my 63rd birthday is coming up, and as impossible it is for me to believe, it’s been three years since that day. Three long, long painful years since I was standing with my husband‘s arm around me, wearing goofy hats, smiling for a camera.
So much has changed in three years. My future has changed. My house has changed. My attitude has changed. My life has changed. In the year that followed that birthday, I watched my husband shrink and suffer and die. In the year following that, I grieved. The following year, I worked to create new plans for myself: a new future alone with a new vision for my life. I coped with the greatest loss I have ever known, and I went on.
This year I turn 63, and I am fully embracing the life of a single woman. I’m out nearly every night, now that the house holds very little to keep me home. I’m going out with old friends for dinners and movies, and I’m meeting new friends every week at singles events. I’m going out on weekends dancing. I’m meeting lots of men. I’m even kissing men. And I know it’s crazy, but every so often I feel that I am betraying Rick, because I’m leaving him and our time together behind. I know it’s wrong, but I think it’s a common feeling among widows.
But I have to live. I have to have a full life without him. I can’t sit staring at these photos much longer. I have to put them away and keep on celebrating birthdays without him. I have no choice.
This year, my birthday falls on a Friday, and there just happens to be a singles event with a band playing at a local bar that night. So I will fully embrace my birthday, and I’ll drink some wine, and laugh, and enjoy myself. I’ll pretend I’m 23, and I’ll dance with my new single friends – and with a few single men – men who are not Rick. Men who will never replace Rick. But this is my life now and there’s no denying it or escaping it. It’s life out among the living.
Despite the guilt that creeps up sometimes, I know Rick is watching and that he’s happy for me – happy that I’m living as fully as I can without him. He may even be as happy as he was three years ago when I agreed to attend the special birthday party he wanted me to have, when all I wanted to do was curl up and cry instead.
Rick convinced me that we need to live while we can. Life is short, and we need to live and have fun and create memories. Life keeps on moving on, whether we’re happy or sad, whether we’re with the person we love or not. So I’ll celebrate again this year without him, even though I’m tempted once again to curl up and cry instead.
So look out, world. I’m still alive, and I’m going to keep on living life as fully as I can. And I know Rick is cheering me on and celebrating with me. Happy birthday to me.